Bloody-minded Jos Buttler proves he has a future in Test cricket

For over four hours Jos Buttler exhibited the discipline of an ascetic monk

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When Jos Buttler arrived in Australia, he had to undergo two weeks of quarantine. After 24 hours confined to his hotel room, Buttler was only allowed out of his hotel for three hours a day, to train. Even inside the hotel, Buttler was not allowed to mingle with the bulk of the Test squad until after the 14 days had passed.

After already spending six weeks in the Middle East for the T20 World Cup, Buttler would spend over 100 nights straight away from home. He signed up to this so that he could make good on an item on his “bucket list”: playing in an away Ashes tour.

It was a powerful riposte to the inane argument sometimes made about Jos Buttler in Test cricket: that he simply doesn’t care enough. Even allowing for how well-remunerated England central contracts are, Buttler – as perhaps the most feared T20 batsman in the world – could make up for the loss of his full England contract by playing in T20 leagues around the world. It would mean more time at home, and Buttler sparing himself from the physical and mental exertions of Test cricket.

Before the Ashes, Buttler declared that he intended to play in a fearless style in Australia, using Rishabh Pant last year as a model. This method brought some promising signs in Brisbane, but the returns – 39 and 23 – were still buccaneering cameos rather than the game-changing contributions that Buttler’s talents have always promised.

A first innings duck, slashing Mitchell Starc to slip, reawakened the debate about Buttler’s Test berth, compounded by him shelling five chances in the Test. For a few split seconds on the final day, it looked like the Buttler debate would intensify further: Buttler edged Starc again, but this time the ball fell between Alex Carey and David Warner, who both left the ball for each other, sparring Buttler a pair.

At the same ground nine years ago, Buttler’s idol, AB de Villiers, played one of his most famous innings. De Villiers was renowned as the batsman who could do everything. But at Adelaide in 2012, he mastered the art of doing nothing – dead-batting for 220 balls – to secure South Africa a draw.

In Adelaide, Buttler played in the same spirit of self-denial. With minimal seam movement – often his weakness – he trusted his defence. Buttler left 50 per cent more deliveries than normal, and only played attacking shots to a quarter as many deliveries as normal.

For over four hours, a resplendent talent – who had eviscerated Starc, Pat Cummins and company to plunder 71 off 32 balls in the T20 World Cup six weeks ago – exhibited the discipline of an ascetic monk. It was a remarkable feat of endurance, resilience and bloody-mindedness – inverting an entire batting method to service the needs of the team.

The Buttler shuffle that effectively confirmed England defeat

You are kidding.

Jos Buttler stands on his own stumps to end his long vigil.

Unbelievable 😳#Ashes pic.twitter.com/MWtPuPfPPW

— Cricket on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) December 20, 2021

Perhaps it is revealing that the best of Buttler the Test cricketer has often been seen in the fourth innings. Here, like in limited-overs cricket, he has been afforded clarity over what his role demands.  

Twice in run chases, Buttler has clinched tricky victories at breakneck speed. In 2020, with his Test career on the line, Buttler’s belligerent 75 hauled England from 117-5 to the brink of their target of 277. A clinical 46*, scored at almost a-run-a-ball, wrapped up victory in Galle this year.

Yet the focus on his attacking prowess has often obscured Buttler’s adaptability – and, contrary to the common perception, a robust defence. In 14 fourth innings, he has now batted for at least two hours six times – two more than Paul Collingwood, whose late-match defiance earned him the sobriquet Brigadier Block. With better support, Buttler’s innings against New Zealand at Headingley in 2015 (73 in 147 balls), India at Trent Bridge in 2018 (106 in 176 balls), Australia at Old Trafford in 2019 (34 in 111 balls) and India at Lord’s last summer (25 in 96 balls) would have salvaged England draws. Instead, all four of these rearguards have not quite been able to prevent England defeats.

Buttler’s fortitude in Adelaide outdid all these feats. After the physical strain of keeping wicket in each of the previous four days – in heat that reached 37 Celsius – Buttler produced an innings that was almost an exact encore of de Villiers’s here. De Villiers scored 33 over 220 balls; Buttler mustered 26 in 207. The difference lay in the support of their team-mates.

Jos Buttler: How big-hitter reined himself in

In Test cricket, Buttler has always had to cope with an unfair comparison: Buttler the limited-overs titan. His lack of first-class pedigree – he averages just 31.5 in the County Championship – and susceptibility to seam movement always meant that the notion that he could replicate his white-ball prowess was outlandish.

Yet Buttler the Test cricketer has also been better than widely-acknowledged. Despite the drops of the last fortnight – intermeshed with some outstanding catches – Buttler has taken 88 per cent of catches as wicketkeeper since being recalled, fractionally above the global average. Buttler’s average of 33.4 since his recall three years ago places him comfortably third among England batsmen with 500 Test runs in this period, below only Ben Stokes and Joe Root.

And so, as polarising as his position has been, the best conclusions to make on Buttler, 55 Tests into his career, are mundane. He is a good, but far from outstanding, Test player, and yet England’s wider failings are such that he has still emphatically justified his recall. Buttler’s real mistake, perhaps, has been in his teammates: in a better side, innings like Adelaide would not have come in defeat. 

Sir Geoffrey Boycott Ashes audio briefing – Tuesday 7 December

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